How to hire a freelance writer for content marketing

By on February 28, 2012 / Finding Inspiration, Social Media, Understanding Your Audience / Leave a comment

One of the biggest challenges in implementing a content marketing strategy is figuring out who is going to produce all that wonderful content.  Even if your team contains a slew of great writers, you may find that it makes more sense to outsource at least some of the writing for your website.

But if you’ve never hired a professional writer, the process might seem daunting. I’ve hired dozens of writers and editors over the course of my career, with a strong track record for spotting talent. Here are my six basic steps for hiring a great freelance writer for your team.

  • Use the right terms to describe the work. Publishing professionals have their own jargon, including the terms they use to identify their various sub-specialties. Copywriters, for example, are experts in promotional writing. They are great at creating landing pages and crafting your calls to action. They may be less competent at the storytelling or informative writing you need for your blog or white papers. Practicing print or online journalists can be great at the latter, but they may not be fully comfortable with the commercial slant of content marketing. Writing for broadcast also calls for a different skillset. (Check out our Content Marketing Glossary for definitions of common terms.)
  • Advertise the job intelligently. In recent years, a number of sites have cropped up that promise to connect people with tens of thousands of writers — many of whom are willing to churn out SEO copy for pennies per word. That variety and price may seem appealing, but remember that you get what you pay for. True professional writers don’t rely on such sites to connect with clients. If you value your brand, you’re much better off using LinkedIn, Monster — or hell, Craigslist — to find a writer than one of these content mills.
  • Request “clips.” An experienced professional writer will have a stack of “clips,” or examples of their work, to share at your request. Review them closely to get a feel for his style, as well as depth of expertise. The latter is especially important for b2b content, which can be highly technical.
  • Check references. A thick stack of great clips can conceal sloppy work habits. Perhaps the writer had a really great editor who spent years cleaning up behind them? Maybe she  only produced one or two works for each client before their behavior problems lead to a tense goodbye. Your best shot at uncovering those kinds of issues is by speaking directly with previous clients.
  • Consider testing them. This practice might seem unusual to people in other professions, but it’s the norm for professional writers and editors to take a test to demonstrate their skills. Have them write a brief sample article under timed conditions — ideally something similar to the content they would be producing for you. If your test requires more than a half hour, I strongly suggest that you pay them for their time.
  • Write a proper contract. You’re hiring someone to produce creative work on your behalf. You need a contract that spells out copyright agreements, as well as a number of other things your standard contractor form probably doesn’t address. You can find plenty of examples online, but if you grab one of those, you’ll want to have your lawyer review it to make sure it meets the requirements of your state and your specific needs.

 Image credit: Pixsooz

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5 Comments

  1. Charlie Allenson
    4:32 pm on February 29, 2012

    Hi Mary Ellen. I think you’ve presented a cogent piece for seeking out a freelance writer. I take exception (as would I think most of experienced writers) to the part about taking a test. If after seeing examples of their writing and thinking, and having an in-depth conversation about the project, a decision should be fairly easy. After all of that, asking an experienced writer to take a writing test is somewhat akin to walking into a restaurant you’ve heard good things about and asking the chef to cook for you for free. I think a better approach is to spend a modest sum on small project, just as you might stop in to a restaurant for a drink and some starters before committing to a whole meal. Date before you get married. Good advice all around.

    Reply

    • Mary Ellen Slayter
      5:10 pm on February 29, 2012

      Thanks for chiming in, Charlie. I know other writers and editors who share your perspective on tests, but tests have never bothered me as long as they weren’t unreasonable in length. I just consider them part of the interview process. Like I said, anything that requires more than a half hour should be paid.

      Reply

      • Charlie Allenson
        7:09 pm on February 29, 2012

        The question is, what kind of test would it be? Say – oh here’s our product. Come up with a few headlines and campaign ideas. Really? The length of time of the test has nothing to do with the knowledge accumulated to create those ideas. Even if you can do it in five minutes. And then what’s to prevent the client from saying “thanks very much – we’ll call you.” Then they use your idea and you don’t get a farthing. Not a cent. Not a rial. I speak from experience. Would they bring a prospective CEO in and say, “Hey, how would you turn the company around?” All we have what’s between our ears. That’s all we have to sell. It ain’t right I tell ya, just ain’t right.

        Reply

        • Mary Ellen Slayter
          1:51 pm on March 1, 2012

          I think we may be discussing apples and oranges here, Charlie.

          I am referring to a process for hiring someone to write for your company blog or newsletter. It’s more editorial than traditional marketing copy.

          Here are a couple of simple, brief ways you can test someone’s writing skills for that:

          *Provide links to 2-3 news stories, and ask them to write an original headline and brief summary for each.

          *Provide the basic facts about an imaginary or real event, and ask them to write a simple news story.

          *Provide a list of links to related to a certain topic and ask them to write a roundup blog post

          In all cases, you’re checking for accuracy, grammar, style and plagiarism. And you’re giving candidates same test over and over, so you have an objective basis to fairly compare people. You’re certainly not requiring them to do work for you for free.

          Of course, I do freely give away ideas, but that generally comes up in the interview phase, not the test.

          As for your CEO question, that IS what a smart company would ask someone before hiring them to lead the entire organization. And probably expect a fairly detailed plan of action.

          Reply

  2. The Week in Content Marketing: Freelancers, Budgets, and More
    4:22 pm on March 2, 2012

    [...] How to Hire a Freelance Writer for Content Marketing: Source, interview, and hire strong freelance writers for your content marketing program. Via Reputation Capital [...]

    Reply

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